Space, contestation and the political: themed issue of Geoforum

As previously advertised, my paper Situating injustice in democratic theory is now published ‘for real’ in Geoforum (not open access, of course, not yet – a pre-publication version is here). It’s part of a Themed Issue on Space, Contestation and the Political, edited by David Featherstone and Benedikt Korf. My piece is a preliminary attempt to outline what follows, geographically, from taking seriously recent work in political philosophy and political theory that develops normative principles from the premiss of the ‘priority of injustice’ – including work by Sen, Honneth, Fraser, Bohman, and Forst. Other contributors are Mustafa Dikeç; Robert Meyer, Conrad Schetter, Janosch Prinz; Uma Kothari; Urs Geiser; Klaus Schlichte; and Jonathan Spencer. Topics include political violence, Carl Schmitt, exile, Arendt and Ranciere, Norbert Eilas.

Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

Injustice in democratic theory

I have a new paper in Geoforum, just published online, titled Situating injustice in the geographies of democracy. It will be included in a special issue on space, contestation and the political, coming out of a workshop held in Zurich back in 2009, organised and now edited by Dave Featherstone, Benedikt Korf, Joris Van Wezemael. I’m not sure exactly when the whole issue will go live. My paper argues that contestation is rather more important to critical theories of deliberative democracy, broadly defined, than is usually acknowledged, and that it is understood in this work in ways that promise a more modest approach to thinking about the geographies of democratic politics than one finds in approaches that adopt a priori conceptions of what counts as ‘political’. It is one of a series of things I have been writing for the last couple of years on the topic of ‘all affected interests’, exploring how this idea from political science and political theory might be re-interpreted as the basis for thinking about geography and democracy; it’s the first of these pieces to actually get out into the world.

Geography and ethics: justice unbound

The first of my three ‘progress reports’ on Geography and Ethics is now published in Progress in Human Geography. This first one is dubbed ‘justice unbound‘, and discusses recent literature on justice and injustice in and around geography and related fields – including Sen’s recent book, G.A. Cohen’s leftist riposte to Rawls, Nancy Fraser, and Iris Marion Young . It was written before recent books by Danny Dorling, Ed Soja, Susan Fainstein were published, but these otherwise different works sort of confirm the point I am trying to make in this piece – that it might be worthwhile to think through the idea that injustice is the medium of justice (the line is J.M. Berstein’s), without thinking that this absolves us completely from engaging with normative reflection on what these terms mean. It’s not meant as a warrant for assuming that we all just naturally know injustice when we see it.

Anyway, as I say, this is the first of three of these reports; the second is already done, the final one I’ll do later this year. I have ended up not quite writing about ‘geography and ethics’, not least cos most of what I know about ethics is part of that poststructuralist strain of thought that Jeff Popke had already reviewed rather thoroughly as the previous ‘incumbent’ of this role; partly because it might be more interesting to think about how normative practices are an ordinary aspect of how life hangs together, rather than thinking of ethics as an extra special ‘responsibility’ that requires a special effort to pull off; and partly because I said ‘yes’ when invited because I wanted to write about some overlaps between social theory, political theory, and moral philosophy that I find intriguing for no other reason that they don’t quite show up in geography-land despite being on the edges of conversations which take place there. I think their not showing up has something to do with the degree to which Theory in geography has drifted into such a resolutely ‘metaphysical’ register, in the sense of this term that someone reminded me this week Ian Hunter uses to describe the genealogy of contemporary Theory-land. But that’s another story.